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Assignment Afghanistan

From keeping tabs on the Taliban to saving puppies, a reporter looks back on her three years covering a nation's struggle to be reborn

I visited Afghanistan that first time for three weeks and then nine more times during Taliban rule. Each time the populace seemed more desperate and the regime more entrenched. On my last trip, in the spring of 2001, I reported on the destruction of two world-renowned Buddha statues carved in the cliffs of Bamiyan, and I watched in horror while police beat back mobs of women and children in chaotic bread lines. Exhausted from the stress, I was relieved when my visa expired and headed straight for the Pakistan border. When I reached my hotel in Islamabad, I stripped off my dusty garments, stood in a steaming shower, gulped down a bottle of wine and fell soundly asleep.

The first sprigs of green were poking up from the parched winter fields of the Shomali Plain stretching north from Kabul. Here and there, men were digging at dried grapevine stumps or pulling up buckets of mud from longclogged irrigation canals. Bright blue tents peeked out from behind ruined mud walls. New white marking stones had been neatly placed on long-abandoned graves. Along the highway heading south to Kabul, masked workers knelt on the ground and inched forward with trowels and metal detectors, clearing fields and vineyards of land mines.

It had been a year since my last visit. From the terrible ashes of the World Trade Center had risen Afghanistan’s deliverance. The Taliban had been forced into flight by American bombers and Afghan opposition troops, and the country had been reinvented as an international experiment in postwar modernization. Within a month of the Taliban’s defeat, Afghanistan had acquired a dapper interim leader named Hamid Karzai, a tenuous coalition government, pledges of $450 million from foreign donors, a force of international peacekeepers in Kabul, and a blueprint for gradual democratic rule that was to be guided and financed by the United Nations and the Western powers.

For 35 months—from November 2001 to October 2004—I would now have the extraordinary privilege of witnessing Afghanistan’s rebirth. This was a journalist’s dream: to record a period of liberation and upheaval in an exotic corner of the world, but without having to be afraid anymore. As on my trips during the Taliban era, I still wore modest garments (usually a long-sleeved tunic over baggy trousers) in deference to Afghan culture, but I was free to stroll along the street without worrying I would be arrested if my head scarf slipped, and I could photograph markets and mosques without hastily hiding my camera under my jacket. Best of all, I could chat with women I encountered and accept invitations to tea in families’ homes, where people poured out astonishing tales of hardship and flight, abuse and destruction—none of which they had ever shared with a stranger, let alone imagined seeing in print.

Just as dramatic were the stories of returning refugees, who poured back into the country from Pakistan and Iran. Day after day, dozens of cargo trucks rumbled into the capital with extended families perched atop loads of mattresses, kettles, carpets and birdcages. Many people had neither jobs nor homes awaiting them after years abroad, but they were full of energy and hope. By late 2003, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had registered more than three million returning Afghans at its highway welcome centers.

I followed one family back to their village in the Shomali Plain, passing rusted carcasses of Soviet tanks, charred fields torched by Taliban troops, and clusters of collapsed mud walls with a new plastic window here or a string of laundry there. At the end of a sandy lane, we stopped in front of one lifeless ruin. “Here we are!” the father exclaimed excitedly. As the family started unloading their belongings, the long-absent farmer inspected his ruined vineyards—then graciously invited me back to taste his grapes after the next harvest.

Another wintry day I drove up into the Hindu Kush mountains, where the main highway tunnel to the north had been bombed shut years before and then lost beneath a mountain of ice. I will never forget the scene that met my eyes through the swirling snow: a long line of families, carrying children and suitcases and bundles toward the tunnel, edging down narrow steps and vanishing inside the pitchblack passageway cut through the ice.

I tried to follow, but my hands and my camera froze instantly. An arctic wind howled through the darkness. As I emerged from the tunnel, I brushed past a man with a little girl on his back, her naked feet purple with cold. “We have to get home,” he muttered. Ahead of them was a two-hour trek through hell.

The rapidly filling capital also sprang back to life, acquiring new vices and hazards in the process. Bombed buildings sprouted new doors and windows, carpenters hammered and sawed in sidewalk workshops, the air was filled with a clamor of construction and honking horns and radios screeching Hindi film tunes. Traffic clogged the streets, and policemen with whistles and wooden “stop” paddles flailed uselessly at the tide of rusty taxis, overcrowded buses and powerful, dark-windowed Landcruisers—the status symbol of the moment—that hurtled along narrow lanes as children and dogs fled from their path. Every time I sat fuming in traffic jams, I tried to remind myself that this busy anarchy was the price of progress and far preferable to the ghostly silence of Taliban rule.

As commerce and construction boomed, Kabul became a city of scams. Unscrupulous Afghans set up “nonprofit” agencies as a way to siphon aid money and circumvent building fees. Bazaars sold U.N. emergency blankets and plasticpouched U.S. Army rations. Landlords evicted their Afghan tenants, slapped on some paint and re-rented their houses to foreign agencies at ten times the previous rent.

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